Every Israeli mother fears what Rona Ramon experienced Sunday: the news that her son has been killed during his mandatory military service. Assaf Ramon was 21 years old, killed when his F-16 fighter jet crashed during a training exercise.
Assaf's death is a national tragedy, coming just six years after the death of his father, Ilan Ramon, who was considered a national hero for being Israel's first and only astronaut. Ilan Ramon was killed in the Columbia space shuttle explosion six years ago, when Assaf was 15 years old.
Shortly after his father's death, Assaf announced his dream of becoming a pilot. "I would like to share with him what he went through and how he felt. I believe it will make me feel closer to him," Assaf said in a 2004 interview with Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot.
Assaf will be buried next to his father today in the military cemetery in northern Israel.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu telephoned Rona Ramon on Sunday evening telling her, "Me and my wife Sara are crying with you, with the entire nation. I'll come to the funeral tomorrow." Netanyahu's scheduled meeting with U.S. special envoy George Mitchell will be postponed until Tuesday so that Netanyahu can attend.
"People on the streets started to cry when they heard Assaf died," Rina Esses, a mother and grandmother from Beit Shemesh said. "You feel like it happened to your own family."
Ehud Yehuda Segev, a 29-year-old teacher from Jerusalem, said he "felt like he had no air to breathe" when he heard the news. "Ilan Ramon was like an emissary of Israel to space," he said. "He and his son symbolize proud Israelis, who give to the country and achieve. They are role models that give strength and power to ordinary Israelis.
"After Ilan died, everyone hoped that the family would start a new life, to get strong. But when Assaf died, you know that the family will have to start again," Segev said.
After his telephone conversation, Netanyahu described the personal hell" Rona is going through. "It is double bereavement, which is almost a biblical tragedy of a father and son following their love for the skies, and ascending to the heavens in iron chariots, and coming back down in chariots of fire," Netanyahu said, according to Yediot Aharonot.
This June, Assaf completed the prestigious and demanding pilot's course in the Israeli Defense Forces, graduating at the top of his class and elected valedictorian. Like his father, also an F-16 pilot, Assaf completed his course with honors.
"Just three months ago I stood, excited, hugging Rona on the parade grounds [at the Air Force graduation ceremony] when Assaf received his wings as an exceptional student," Chief of Staff Lt. General Gabi Ashkenazi said Sunday night after the crash. "Assaf followed his father's path…"
"Unfortunately, this is part of the price of living in this beloved country."
Sunday afternoon, Ramon took off from an air base in southern Israel for close combat training with another plane. After practicing three dogfights, the lead pilot lost sight of Ramon's plane, according to the Jerusalem Post. Air Traffic Control was immediately contacted, but Ramon had already struck a mountain.
According to Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, an IDF officer among the first on the scene said that "all that was left was a big, burned out crater, with very little debris." Ramon's remains were found not far from the crater, according to an eyewitness on Israeli television station Channel 10, there was a parachute among the debris, indicating that Ramon may have tried to eject.
The causes of the accident are unclear, but the initial reports suggest a high probability that the crash was the result of human factors. The Jerusalem Post reported the pilot may have blacked out on a turn, or experienced vertigo. Alternatives include the possibility that the plane had a mechanical failure which Ramon may not have time to report.
On the space shuttle, Ilan Ramon aimed to represent Israel and Jews all over the world, and took a small prayer book - kept by a young boy who survived the Holocaust - with him into space. In a 2003 article in the Jerusalem Post, Ramon is quoted as saying the prayer book symbolized "the ability of the Jewish people to survive everything, including horrible periods, and go from the darkest of days with hope and faith in the future."
President Shimon Peres sees the Ramon men as symbols even in their death. "I knew them both, father and son-- Ilan and Assaf-- fighters, scholars, courageous men, dreamers… As a family they are a symbol for all that is great in Jewish history, all that is courageous in the Jewish state," Peres said.